Over the last few years I’ve walked the banks of the Chatanika river upstream of the Elliot highway bridge all the way to the Steese highway (about 8-10 miles) and 2-3 river miles downstream of where the Alaska pipeline crosses the river. Several years ago at the furthest downstream point I’ve walked, I ran into a trail intersecting the river from the South East. When I got home that day I immediately logged onto google maps, loaded up a satellite view of the area, and tried to figure out where the trail was coming from. It turned out I’d been passing the start of the trail on many of my walks without noticing. The trail starts where the Olnes pond pipeline access road intersects the pipeline. If you walk across the pipeline maintenance road, under the pipeline, and about 10 feet to the North, you will find the trail. Ever since I discovered where it starts and finishes I’ve wanted to see if I could follow it.
According to google maps the trail is only about a mile long and is less than half as long as following the curves of the river, but distance is not everything. Looking at the trail using the satellite view I could tell it crossed some very wet terrain. At several points the trail disappeared into small ponds and bogs and I was not sure I could actually traverse it when things were not frozen. In addition, heading out into the unknown can be intimidating and risky. Although I knew where the trail started and finished, it was not the only trail in the area. From the satellite view of the area I could see that several other trails ran in similar directions, sometimes crossing each other, but unlike road travel, off trail or on random unofficial trails there are no signs that tell you where to go or google directions to follow. And while it can look clear from above, on the ground I know from experience that it can sometimes be very difficult to tell one turn from another.
Last fall I’d walked about a quarter mile down the trail but was forced to the north and ended up cutting cross country till I hit the river due to boggy terrain. Today I was determined to find my way across, following the trail as much as possible till I hit the river.
To get to the start of the trail is a 2.4-mile bike or walk from Olnes pond where parking is available. Although the road continues all the way to the pipeline, vehicle access is restricted unless you have a key and a pass from the Alyeska corporation. As far as I know keys are only given out to those who have property or a fishing camp further down river. The access road runs East to West and ends at the pipeline.
The pipeline corridor also contains a maintenance road that runs from the North Slope of Alaska to Valdez continuously in the pipeline corridor. Access roads are staged all along the pipeline connecting local roads and highways to the pipeline corridor. Most of these roads have limited access but are open to those on foot. From the point where the Olnes access road intersects the pipeline corridor, the Chatanika river is only a few hundred yards to the North where a boat launch is located.
In addition to connecting the Elliot highway to the pipeline corridor and providing access to Olnes Pond recreation area, the access road parallels the Chatanika river and provides easy access to the river for several miles. One of my favorite summer activities is fishing and walking the river banks and I have used the road for years to explore the river and surrounding land. There are hills to the North and south of the river, but the access road stays low and close to the river. Despite the easy terrain, I have not biked very much this summer and even before I reached the start of the trail I was a feeling a slight burn in my legs.
I reached the trail a little before 10 am and after stashing my bike out of sight headed down the trail. From the very start the trail was challenging; ruts and pools of water forced me to hop from side to side. I could have walked parallel to the trail, but there were either many small trees or open land covered in tussocks on either side. Neither the trail or the surrounding land were easy to walk on.
The trail is used by snow-machines and dog mushers in the winter and sometimes in the fall by hunters on all-terrain vehicles. It is this latter category of user that has damaged the trail and made it more difficult to follow than just the terrain would account for. In some places, fall hunters have made multiple tracks across the land to avoid difficult spots, while in other areas repeated passes of all-terrain vehicles have created deep ruts that are full of water this time of the year. Finally, as a mostly winter trail the path often runs straight through very boggy areas that I had to bypass and then find the trail again. It made for some very difficult walking conditions and I considered turning back or cutting North to the river several times. In fact, I was just about to head back or cut North when I suddenly came through some scrubby black spruce and reached the river. The river is about 15 ft. below the bank where the trail intersects and is not visible until you are upon it. There are no rapids and no great elevation drop in the area so the river does not make a lot of noise and what noise it does make is contained in the river channel. From only a few hundred yards away it can be very difficult to tell it is even there.
I was very relieved to finally reach the river. At no time was I ever lost, but knowing where you are in the greater landscape is not the same as knowing where you are in the localized environment. The country is open and I had distant landmarks all around, but at the same time, If I’d been off by even 1/4 mile I could have missed the river and headed off in a direction that would have taken a long time to find my way back. It took me nearly two hours to travel the mile down the trail and if I’d had to cut back to the river because I’d gotten off on a side trail that took me too far to the south, or if I’d had to backtrack I could have spent much longer.
I was very tired by the time I reached the river. My legs were burning from walking through tussocks and on uneven ground. The only thing that kept me going forward was the knowledge that walking back would be easier along the river banks where there are animal trails and gravel bars. Still not the easiest travel but a lot better than trying to follow the trail I’d chosen to explore today. Animal trails are common along the riverbanks and tend to be easier to follow than trying to find your own way through.
If you can find the animal trails they always follow the path of least resistance. For the first few years I was exploring the river I fought the brush until I discovered that if you walk just a little way into the woods you can almost always find a trail. The trails may only be 15 ft off the river but until you are nearly on top of them, are almost invisible.
Animal trails are created over years and only change when the land itself changes due to erosion, fires, or downed trees. Even downed trees are only a temporary change for a few years while that tree rots and sinks into the earth. In some areas where terrain is difficult and there are few options for travel, trails can become etched deep into the earth. There is one trail I know of that is straight, narrow and nearly a foot deep for several hundred yards. It threads its way through a thick black spruce stand between two bodies of water to a narrow water crossing and travels from the Chatanika river to a lake in the hills.
Most trails are not as deeply etched and do shift some. One summer several years ago I accomplished a major goal of mine by walking upriver from the Elliot highway to the Steese highway. It’s a distance of 8-10 miles with no human made trails for much of the distance. Instead I followed animal trails. I’ve found that if I slow down, let my feet follow the animal trails without thinking about where I need to go and how long it is going to take to get there, if don’t worry about the exact direction, but follow the general direction, I fall into a natural rhythm dictated by the trails. In this manner I’ve found I can walk great distances without fighting the brush.
While I try to follow animal trails as much as possible, I often still find myself thinking I know better. On my way back upriver there is a large bend that heads north and would have added at least half a mile to my walk if I’d stayed on the river. For years when traveling this path, I’ve cut across the bend to save time. In the past I’ve always cut diagonally across following as straight a path as I could. On this day I stumbled upon an animal trail and instead followed it across. It headed in a slightly more northerly direction than I wanted, but I was tired and it was easier walking to follow it than fight the brush. I wish I’d followed it before. Not only did I make it across the bend faster, but I used less energy and only ended up 100 ft downstream from where I normally make my crossing.
Like many animal trails, getting on them is often easier from one direction. From the west, heading upriver it was easy to find this trail as it was well defined, but where it intersected the river at its East end it was not obvious and broke into several paths just before reaching the river bank. Maybe this is why I’ve never seen or used it before. In past walks downriver through this area I have left the river before getting to where this trail would start and then on my return trips upriver I’ve tended to follow the same path I took coming down.
Unlike human trails, most animal trails only come together when it is convenient to do so and break apart when it is not. Humans like to travel in straight lines and these types of trails do not work well if that is your plan. Using animal trails often involves connecting disjointed clear path segments by easier to travel off trail segments, and rarely do the animal trails go in the exact direction you want, but are often still easier and faster to follow than trying to force your way directly to your destination.
I eventually made it back to the pipeline corridor and followed it back to the start of the trail and the Olnes pond access road. I picked up my bike and headed back to the truck on tired legs. I’d left the truck at just after 9 am and arrived back a bit after 2 pm. After looking at google maps when I got home I calculated that I covered 8.4 miles; 3.7 on foot and 4.7 by bike. It was an exhausting trip, but following the trail as I did has been a goal of mine for several years and it always feels good when you can accomplish a goal no matter how big or small.